Tuesday, September 8, 2009

With hurricane season upon us once again, the recent anniversary of one of the most deadly and destructive in our nation’s history — the mega-storm called Katrina — was an occasion for remembering what can happen if we are unprepared.

Unfortunately, what was arguably the most important lesson of that hurricane has still not been addressed: the truly catastrophic vulnerability of all of the infrastructures upon which our society critically depends to interruptions of the electrical grid.

Worse yet, there are both looming man-induced and far more devastating natural means of precipitating such interruptions that we have not begun to address. Should these eventuate, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will look like, well, a day at the beach.

It is no exaggeration to say that the effect of one or the other of these assaults on our electrical grid could be to engender what Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called “a world without America.”

As Katrina demonstrated, if the electricity goes off for any protracted period, a cascading ripple-effect takes down the means by which we communicate, get food and water, access financial resources, receive medical services, dispose of sewage and move from one location to another. The longer the time without electricity, the more difficult it is to bring such other infrastructures back on line.

If some of the roughly 300 transformers that are the backbone of our electrical grid are damaged or destroyed, the interruption to the electrical grid will not be brief. Today, we have few backups in place. These large and complex pieces of equipment are all produced overseas and it takes at least a year to take delivery of even one, let alone many.

William R. Graham, President Reagan’s science adviser, estimates that, if the electricity is off in large sections of America (far more than the relatively small area afflicted by Katrina) for as long as a year, the effect will not simply be on the quality of life here. He says as many as 9 in 10 of our men, women and children will die from starvation, disease and/or exposure.

Mr. Graham knows whereof he speaks. He has served for years as the chairman of a congressionally empaneled commission made up of many of the most knowledgeable scientists in the United States. Their job has been to examine in detail a phenomenon known as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could be used by our enemies like Iran to effect such devastation.

The Graham panel has come to be known as the EMP Threat Commission and it has developed a particularly worrisome scenario. A nondescript freighter off one of our coasts could launch with no warning a relatively short-range ballistic missile. Were that missile armed with even a relatively small and crude nuclear weapon that was detonated in space high over the United States, it would unleash large quantities of gamma rays.

As those rays interact with the upper atmosphere, the effect would be to create an immense burst of electromagnetic energy. Any electrical or electronic device — including the grid’s transformers — not shielded against this pulse would be, at best, taken temporarily off-line. More likely, they will be made permanently unusable.

It turns out, however, that other assaults on our grid might have a similar effect:

Radio-frequency weapons could be used to go after critical nodes of the electrical infrastructure in a more tactical way.

Cyber-warfare has increasingly been waged against the computers that control the grid and other vital parts of our economy’s electronic underbelly. The perpetrators have not been positively identified, but those responsible for protecting against such cyber attacks suspect Chinese and Russian sources.

Then there is the mother of all threats to the electrical grid: a naturally occurring phenomenon known as geomagnetic solar events. These intense solar flares were observed by a British scientist named Richard Carrington back in 1859.

Scientists say we are overdue for another of these sorts of super solar storms. The destruction they could cause to the world’s unprotected grids could run to the trillions of dollars to repair and the loss of countless lives.

The good news is that there are things that can be done to make our electrical infrastructure less vulnerable to these sorts of Katrina-on-steroids assaults. That is especially true now, as the stimulus package enacted earlier this year makes billions of dollars available to effect long-overdue and much-needed upgrades in the U.S. grid.

The question is: Will we take those steps in time, before hostile forces or further natural phenomena devastate this country?

This week a large number of Americans determined to take such preventive action now are convening in Niagara Falls, N.Y. — a community that knows something about hydro-electric power and its importance for the country.

This meeting will be the first-of-its-kind on this subject, a large conference open to the public and aimed at educating the rest of us about these threats, and impelling the adoption of prophylactic measures.

Presentations will be made by Newt Gingrich and several key serving legislators, as well as many of the country’s most knowledgeable scientists, security policy experts and industry leaders.

Organized by a new group, EMPAct America, this meeting represents the best opportunity to date to translate the warnings of the EMP Threat Commission into action. The time has come to do just that.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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